PAUL TAZEWELL : Tony award winning costume designer of HAMILTON

Have you heard of a little musical called HAMILTON? Paul Tazewell designed the costumes for it and won a well-deserved Tony for his amazing work. He’s been designing costumes for theater, opera, dance & film for over 20 years. I could go on and on about his incredible life and achievements, but let’s let him speak for himself…

01. What’s your typical morning routine? How do you get your day started?

Oh Dear. Well, it depends on the day. I tend to wake up between 7:00 and 7:30. If I have early fittings that start at 9:00 then I am up earlier (5:30-6:00) because I live in Westchester one hour north of Manhattan and have to take the train or drive in. Coffee, shower, yogurt & granola and then I’m out the door!

02. You were born in Akron, Ohio and I believe you went on to higher education in North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania. As a young kid in Akron, when did you know what you wanted to do with your life? Did you always know or was it more about getting out of your small town?

I did grow up in Akron Ohio. I was one of four boys born to my dad who was a research chemist for Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. and a mother that was a French and English teacher, but also very proficient in painting, puppet making and performing. My mother, even to this day, is my biggest fan and cheerleader. I painted and created puppets alongside my mother early in my years and was exposed to both professional live theater productions as well as school plays and productions. When I was old enough to take part in productions in junior high I fell in love with theater and performing. In High school, I was in the performing arts program half of the day and then took academics the other half. We were all fortunate to get to intern at Akron University. I did mine with the costume shop in the theater department. Even though I was designing the costumes and sets for the productions I was playing a role in while in high school, my greatest love was performing. After I graduated, I entered into Pratt institute in Brooklyn NY to major in fashion design. My hope was to spend my off time from school taking dance and acting classes to further my skills as a performer. That was what growing up in Akron gave me. I was able to be inspired to look outside of Akron for the most proactive way to succeed in theater, whether designing or acting.

After a year I decided to transfer to The University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I received a BFA in Costume design after three years and then went immediately to NYU Tisch School of the Arts to pursue my Graduate degree. Three years later I was graduating from Tisch with an MFA in costume and set design. That was the spring of 1989. After graduating I was fortunate to start designing regularly around the country for multiple regional theaters.

03. Can you tell me a little about the first productions you designed for? Does the project always inform the work, or does your own personal style come into play?

As a costumer I have learned to be a bit of a chameleon. I think many designers would say that of themselves. That is the fun of designing. As a costume designer I live vicariously through all of the characters in a production. Whether those characters are young or old, male or female, Asian or Latino. It changes as the stories change and the need of a specific production changes. I adapt to how the director has decided to tell the story.

04. So…HAMILTON. What was your initial reaction when the idea came across your table? A hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton seems so crazy. Were you hesitant at all to the idea?

I have to admit that the only historical facts that I knew about Alexander Hamilton when I was asked to join the team were that he was killed in a duel by Aaron Burr, and that his portrait lives on our Ten dollar bill. So to answer your question, yes I was skeptical. But I had also already designed a musical that Lin had written and starred in and that Tommy Kail had directed, IN THE HEIGHTS. I had full faith and trust in the brilliance of HAMILTON.

05. I know you’ve talked about this before, but how did you initially tackle the costumes for Hamilton? Was there an immediate spark of inspiration or did it take lots of research digging into 18th Century looks?

I worked for a long time developing the design of HAMILTON, starting by collecting a large file of research on 18th Century and American Revolutionary uniforms and clothing. I also developed a file of images of 18th Century inspired contemporary clothing. The challenge was to find within the clothing spectrum of 18th Century, through to contemporary fashion, the most compelling way to present the story that Lin had written. Also to keep within the contemporary style that it had been written.

06. Can you tell me a little about working with Lin-Manuel Miranda? How important is it for you to have a connection with the creator you’re working with?

First, let me say that it is very rare to work with someone as talented but also as accessible as Lin. I think the great trust that I have in Lin and Tommy Kail allows me to do my best work. It’s very important.

07. Can you describe a moment when you felt like you really made it? Was is winning the Tony, or did it come before that?

I feel like that idea of “made it” has continued to evolve and change throughout my career. I would say that designing HAMILTON, experiencing all of the joy around the show, and receiving the Tony Award for my work has moved me closer to feeling like I have arrived.

08. Are you working on anything new right now that you’re excited about?.

I am currently in the middle of shooting The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks. It is a very compelling film for HBO that stars Oprah Winfrey and Rose Byrne and is directed by George C. Wolfe. It is about the woman whose cancer cells became known as HeLa.

09. What is currently inspiring you and in what way? (book, movie, song, podcast, anything really…)

I am inspired by any story of people being good to each other and taking authentic care of each other, especially stranger to stranger.

10. How do you end a typical day? What do you do to unwind? 

I usually have a lovely dinner with my husband or friends and then crash into sleep from the exhaustion of the day. If I am working on a current design project that might happen much later in the night.

You can find Mr. Tazewell on the web:

Paul Tazewell

photo borrowed from The MET ARTIST PROJECT.

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